Hope for the Homeless – Willie’s Place celebrates official grand opening

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Willie Hester’s story shows that even a homeless man with addiction problems can make a positive impact on the people around him.

Speaking at an emotional re-opening ceremony for the drop-in day centre named for his late father on March 1, Randal Hester recounted how Willie always wanted to come back to Val-d’Or, “no matter how hard we tried to stop him. Now I know why, because he had a vision [for the homeless community]. I’m glad that I can see that realized today.”

It was an emotional day at the centre as intervention workers, chiefs, government ministers, media, friends and family in a temporary tent behind the new shelter at 728 4th Avenue. The Enquête investigation that called into question the treatment of First Nations women by certain Val-d’Or Sûreté du Québec officers last fall mobilized many individuals and organizations to improve relations with First Nations in the different communities of the Abitibi region.

With $280,262 allocated by the Quebec government through March 31, 2017, in the wake of the crisis, Willie’s Place now has the finances it needs to operate for a full year. It will also benefit from the $43,000 raised by the Creeco charity golf tournament in May 2015.

Lac Simon Chief Salomé Mackenzie, Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, Aboriginal Minister of Affairs Geoffrey Kelley, Liberal MPs Guy Bourgeois and Luc Blanchette, and Val-d’Or mayor Pierre Corbeil all commended the actions taken by government and city officials, the Native Friendship Centre and many others in the four months following the allegations and recognized the tremendous importance of Willie’s Place in the lives of the people it serves.

The drop-in spot offers not only a place to warm up, grab a coffee or enjoy a traditional meal, but also a smile, a friendly face and the chance to talk to social workers about their various struggles. The staff is on hand seven days a week from 8 am to 10 pm to give those who frequent the shelter support to kick a drug or alcohol dependency, look for work or find a place to live. Director Sharon Hunter also noted that Chez Willie’s networks with several other support mechanisms for homeless people throughout the city.

Grand Chief Coon Come speaks at the Willie's place grand opening

“Willie wasn’t alone, he made many friends along his journey,” said Grand Chief Coon Come at the inauguration ceremony. “His memory lives on and we have not forgotten him. Nor have we forgotten the other men and women who are struggling right now. Who might not know what their next step is, when their next meal is or if they will be able to find shelter tonight and get out of the cold for a few hours.

“True to Willie’s spirit, Chez Willie is a place for brothers and sisters to come in and find a helping hand and a warm cup of coffee,” Coon Come continued. “The frontline workers, Christopher, Sharon, Coco and everyone else who comes in with the will to help someone out there or sometimes just to listen. These people are the lifeline, vital to helping their brothers and sisters back on to their feet, towards a path of recovery.”

A ribbon-untying ceremony, accompanied by singing and traditional drumming, followed the speeches. Also present were Willie Hester’s brothers Patterson and George, sisters Josephine, Barbara, Shirley and her husband Bert, sons Randal and Riley, daughters Deanna and Denisa and granddaughter Layna.

“I’m very glad that my dad spoke out to help his friends who struggle in the streets and I want to continue helping people too,” said Randal Salt. “It calms me a bit to know that people are going to find help now, they have this place to come to.”

Friends and relatives took turns telling their stories and remembering Willie long after the visitors, media and camera crews departed. Over moose stew, rabbit, caribou and beaver, they shared memories of Willie’s compassion and his love to laugh, recalling the connection he had to Val-d’Or and the people with whom he roamed the streets.

the Hester family in front of Willie's place

“When we woke up in the morning, in the park or wherever we were, Willie used to say ‘I wanna ride a pony! I wanna ride a pony and Gordon wants baloney’,” laughed old friend Gordon Kanatewat.

“To me he used to say, ‘Let’s get married! Let’s get married tonight and get divorced in the morning!’” exclaimed former bartender-turned-social worker Carole “Coco” Marcil.

“My dad loved to joke around,” Randal Salt observed. “I wonder what he would say right now. To make everyone laugh I think he would say, ‘Now they want to create something, after I’m gone.’

“But seriously, he would be thankful,” Randal added. “Thankful that we’re helping out everybody in the streets, his friends. And not just us now but into the future, we don’t know where our grandchildren might be in the future.”

Willie Hester's son Randal Salt

Willie Hester’s son Randal Salt speaks to friends and family chez Willie

Tears and laughter marked the occasion that commemorated the uniqueness of Willie’s life and the contribution he made in raising awareness of the difficult situations faced by so many Natives who arrive in the city.

Hanging on the wall just inside the entrance is a framed photo of Willie next to a poem entitled “My Dearest Late Friend,” written by Adrian Herodier. Adrian is another of Willie’s old companions who knows the realities of life in the streets of Val-d’Or all too well.

Thanks to Willie and the efforts of Christopher Stephen, Coco Marcil, Benoit Theoret, Annick Julien, Etienne Gignac, Lillian and Hilary Icebound, coordinator Sharon Hunter of the Native Friendship Centre and many other individuals and organizations, the homeless community of Val-d’Or once-again has a place they can call their own.

“We’re giving them direction and the chance to prove to themselves that they’re capable of having change in their lives,” affirmed Stephen.

“It’s not just about being there for them [providing a service] it’s also about caring and having compassion for all individuals, Native or otherwise. We want the people in the streets of Val-d’Or to know that there’s always hope for them here at Willie’s Place.”

Grand Chief Coon Come, Geoffrey Kelley, Coco Marcil and Christopher Steven at Willie's place

Grand Chief Coon Come, Geoffrey Kelley, Coco Marcil and Christopher Steven at Willie’s place

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